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Gallery silent as video is played

September 06, 2002|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

A Berkeley County courtroom was silent for six minutes Thursday morning as a videotape was played showing the "chaos" caused when a dump truck collided with six cars on W.Va. 9 in July, killing three people.

Brian William Strobridge, 37, of Thatcher Road in Martinsburg, is charged with three felony counts of driving under the influence of cocaine, causing death.

Before playing the tape during Strobridge's preliminary hearing, Berkeley County Assistant Prosecutor Steve Groh warned the more than 20 people crammed into a small gallery to leave or turn their heads if they could not watch.

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Taken with a handheld video camera by a deputy, the tape started with footage of the first car hit, a Toyota Camry driven by 51-year-old Marian Rao. She was pronounced dead at City Hospital.

The cameraman then walked the path of the accident, focusing on each car struck and, lastly, on the dump truck. Crushed and mangled underneath the truck were the remnants of a red Jeep Wrangler, driven by 17-year-old Terry Lee Walker Jr. of Leetown, W.Va., whose body was trapped in the wreckage for several hours.

Walker's passenger, 20-year-old Carleton Wilcox of Charles Town, W.Va., was thrown from the Jeep and pronounced dead at the scene.

As the video played, the only audible sound was that of people in the courtroom crying. A victim's advocate quietly handed out tissues.

Sound on the tape was muted.

Strobridge hung his head and kept his eyes closed as the six-minute tape played.

After watching the video and hearing testimony from four witnesses, Magistrate Kristy Greer found enough probable cause to forward the case to Circuit Court for possible grand jury indictment.

Berkeley County bailiff Robert "Mike" Hooe was heading home when the accident happened around 4:45 p.m. on July 10. He testified that he saw the dump truck cross the center line and hit Rao's car, which spun around a "couple of times " before coming to rest. Strobridge then kept going and the truck hit the Jeep, he said.

Hooe, whose car was hit by debris, said he never saw who was driving the truck.

Sgt. Russell Shackelford, a criminal investigator with the Berkeley County Sheriff's Department, was asked to describe what he saw when he arrived a few minutes after the wreck.

"What I observed was total chaos," he testified, indicating several cars were wrecked, two people were dead and a third, Rao, had been taken to the hospital.

Rao tried to brake but because the wreck happened on the bridge over the Opequon Creek, she had nowhere to go, Shackelford said. Neither did Walker, in his Jeep, he said.

When he arrived, Shackelford said, Strobridge was walking around, and approached police, saying he was the driver. After he was read his Miranda rights, Strobridge spoke to officers, saying he thought he was going about 45 mph at the time of the wreck. He said he had gotten about six hours of sleep the night before, but complained of weariness.

Strobridge told police the dump truck had a lot of "play" in the steering wheel, and he was trying to control it when he hit Rao's car, according to a statement Strobridge gave that Shackelford read aloud in court. Strobridge told police that after hitting Rao's car, he lost control of his dump truck, Shackelford said.

After the truck came to rest, Strobridge called 911, according to testimony.

Strobridge did not testify and his attorney, Robert C. Stone Jr., called no witnesses.

When police arrested Strobridge two weeks after the accident, he asked the nature of the charges, Shackelford said. After being told cocaine had been found in his system, Strobridge said, "There shouldn't have been anything there," because he had not "done anything" for a couple of days, Shackelford testified.

There was some debate during the hearing about whether Shackelford could relay information connected with the lab test done on a blood sample taken from Strobridge.

Stone argued that anything Shackelford said would be hearsay. Lab workers were subpoenaed but did not appear, according to Groh.

Greer allowed Shackelford to relate what lab workers told him.

Shackelford said he was told a test is declared positive for cocaine if the results show 150 to 300 nanograms of cocaine per milliliter of blood in a person's system. Strobridge's test revealed 880 nanograms, Shackelford said. "I was informed that that was a substantial amount," Shackelford said.

Before the hearing ended, Stone asked that the charges be dismissed. He again cited the lab test, in which the substance found in Strobridge's system was not written specifically as "cocaine," but rather a long, scientific name he started, but did not finish, pronouncing.

Greer denied Stone's motion. Benzoylmethylecgonine is the scientific name for cocaine, according to information found on more than 50 Web sites.

Strobridge is free on $200,000 bail, with a condition that he not drive.

After the hearing, Shackelford, Cpl. Willie Johnson and the prosecutor met with members of the victims' families in a separate, vacant courtroom. They explained what had happened, answered questions and described what will happen next.

If a grand jury indicts Strobridge, he could go to trial.

A conviction on a charge of DUI causing death carries a prison sentence of one to 10 years. If convicted on all counts, Strobridge could face up to 30 years in prison.

Strobridge has no past criminal convictions in Berkeley County. In August 2000, a state trooper charged him with driving a Ford Ranger pickup truck without due care or caution, but the charge was dismissed after the officer failed to appear in court.

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